Jean Gourmelin: Tenants of the Void

« It’s true that Gourmelin’s world has everything to unsettle the general public: it contains as much horror as black humour, as much morbidness as sombre poetry. But to classify his drawings in a well-defined genre is a hopeless enterprise, and we well know how our times need clear, idiotic and exact labels. This relegates Gourmelin to some fuzzy area, a sort of no man’s land where one can find anything — even fanatics — but never a thing to eat or to drink. » — from the artist’s presentation in the anthology Les chefs-d’œuvre du dessin d’humour* (1965, Les éditions Planète; ).

While France’s Jean Gourmelin (1920-2011) started out as a painter and practiced — and often mastered — scores of artistic techniques and media (etching, technical drawing, sculpture, stained glass, wallpaper design, and so on…), he’s more commonly remembered for his stark black and white, wordless pen and ink drawings. Even as they remain open to interpretation, their power and eloquence are undeniable.

While his earliest drawings appeared in print sporadically from 1951, his crucial turning point was his 1961 encounter with Belgian writer-historian Jacques Sternberg, who encouraged Gourmelin to emphasise, in his work, idea over form. This canny shift in approach soon landed his newly-galvanised work in the pages of Planète, crucially, but also those, just as notable, of Bizarre, Midi-minuit Fantastique, Pariscope, Hara-Kiri… with occasional forays into other media, for instance some striking production design for a 1967 TV adaptation of Gustav Meyrink‘s classic novel, The Golem. Here’s an unexpected (and fine!) article in English about Gourmelin’s work on the film.

Here, then, are some (dark) highlights of Gourmelin’s work in the 1960s.

This one is entitled « En famille ».
Ever had one of those weeks?
This piece appeared in Les chefs-d’œuvre de l’épouvante (1965, Les éditions Planète), accompanying Claude Farrère‘s classic 1928 short-short story, Le Train perdu, which you can read here (in the original French). Gourmelin also provided the anthology’s arresting cover and frontispiece artwork. Maybe next time…


*It says something (flattering, if you ask me) about the Gallic character that Gourmelin’s work would fall under the category of “humorous”. We’re a looong way from, say… Dave Barry.

Jean Barbe, Architect of the Absurd*

« In my youth I thought of writing a satire on mankind! but now in my age I think I should write an apology for them. » — Horace

Cartoonist and illustrator André-François Barbe (1936-2014) was born in Nîmes, France.

After an abortive stint in the French air force, he spent a few years fiddling around in Air France’s employ. His earliest professional drawings saw print in the venerable Le Rire (1894-1971) in 1958. After a few years of tentative, but increasingly encouraging results, he finally made his decisive move in 1965, joining the shaky ranks of full-time cartoonists.

Fittingly, Barbe was an unabashedly chatty man in person… while his work scarcely required words.

While frequently satirical in subject, Barbe’s approach never stoops to easy mockery or gratuitous acerbity. Instead, one finds grace and lyrical elegance… now and then flavoured with a tangy venom chaser. In this finespun register, I’d place him in a class with the likes of Saul Steinberg, Jean-Jacques Sempé, Jean-Michel Folon, Jean-Claude Suares, Guillermo Mordillo, Shel Silverstein, Joaquín ‘Quino‘ Lavado and Maurice Henry.

A self-portrait of the bewhiskered (of course!) young artiste at his easel.
Remember how deep our television sets used to be?
This one anticipates a similar concept later mined by his Argentine contemporary, Guillermo Mordillo. To wit, check out co-admin ds’ Mordillo gallery… you’ll know just which cartoon I mean.
Like Gerard Hoffnung before him, Barbe was a connaisseur of classical music. He would frequently return to this theme.
M.C. Escher meets the bourgeois promeneurs!
He takes on the Army…
… and the Clergy…
… and the bourgeoisie.

By the early 1970s, Barbe was increasingly devoting his pen and his interest to erotic subjects, and that’s the work he’s most associated with. Though that material held greater commercial clout, the work remained flawlessly executed and formally explorative… at least at first. Then, I’d argue that it became a bit of a cul-de-sac. Personally, I’ve always found it a bit chilly in its execution, quite a liability for erotica. Your kilométrage may vary.

Speaking of distances, Barbe was always a bit of a routard, an adventurous traveller. Here’s one instance of particular interest:

In the 1980s, on the initiative of his brother Michel Barbe, a history and geography teacher in Marseille, he took part in a conference given by Haroun Tazieff on the subject of volcanism. Owing to the quality of his drawing skill, he was allowed to accompany, in 1982, an exploratory scientific journey to the volcanic region of the Djibouti Rift. This expedition, led by Lucy co-discoverer Maurice Taieb, enlisted 32 professors who explored the basalt flows in the Assal Lake depression.


*a handy description I’ve rifled from the ever-erudite Jacques Sternberg.

Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 28

« The world dies over and over again, but the skeleton always gets up and walks. » — Henry Miller

A few months back, while assembling a post about polymorphic French surrealist Maurice Henry (1907-1984), I marvelled and chuckled at his multitude of skeleton-themed cartoons. I made a mental note to devote a Hallowe’en post to them… and that memo only floated to the top of my consciousness a couple of days ago. Just in time!

This one doesn’t feature skeletons, but I had to include it, given how stunningly *dark* it is for its (or any) era… can you imagine something like this published in the USA in… 1935? For more context, here’s the Bluebeard ditty.
In closing, and just for kicks: sixteen faces of the playfully photogenic Monsieur Henry. This one-man assembly featured on the back cover of Maurice Henry 1930-1960 (1961, Jean-Jacques Pauvert), a remarkable collection.

Trust me, I’m only scratching the surface of this man’s genius. If you’ll bear with me, we’re not done with him.


Maurice Henry: Make Way for Surrealism

« The man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot. » ― André Breton

What is one to do, in a mere blog post, with a polymorphous artist such as Maurice Henry (1907-1984)?

Here’s a handy bit of compressed biography, from his Lambiek page:

Henry was a French painter, poet, filmmaker, as well as a cartoonist. Between 1930 until his death, he published over 25,000 cartoons in 150 newspapers and a dozen books. His cartoons were generally surrealistic and satirical.

In 1926, he co-founded the magazine Le Grand Jeu with René Daumal, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and Roger Vaillard, with whom he formed the “Phrères simplistes” collective. Henry provided poems, texts and drawings, while also making his debut as a journalist in Le Petit Journal.

He left Le Grand Jeu in 1933 to join André Breton’s group of Surrealists and their magazine Surréalisme au service de la Révolution. He also worked with the artist and photographer Artür Harfaux on the screenplay of twenty films, including ones starring the comic characters ‘Les Pieds Nickelés’ and ‘Bibi Fricotin’. Maurice Henry spent the final years of his life making paintings, sculptures and collages. He passed away in Milan, Lombardy, in 1984.

The answer? My default solution, which is to focus on some small parcel of the much greater whole. A number of Henry’s works bear revisiting (for instance, Les métamorphoses du vide [1955], a truly groundbreaking picture book about the world of dreams; À bout portant [1958], a collection of literary portraits; or Les 32 positions de l’androgyne [1961, also issued in the US in 1963], a chapbook of… gender recombinations) and deserve a turn in the spotlight.

To quote co-anthologists Jacques Sternberg and/or Michael Caen in their indispensable Les chefs-d’oeuvre du dessin d’humour (1968, Éditions Planète, Louis Pauwels, director):

Surrealism — he was part of the group before 1930 — left its mark on him and it’s because he was already well-cultured as he launched his career that he was among the first, in the desert that was the publishing world of the 1930s, to attempt unusual drawings calling upon often startling ingredients, such as poetry, black humour, the fantastic and the absurd. He caused no less of a surprise by doing away with captions, at a time when bawdy jabbering was the fashion all over. In short, Maurice Henry was indisputably a pioneer of that grey and stinging brand of humour that would explode like an H-bomb some fifteen years later.

A lovely bit of conceptual humour from 1938. A rare one bearing a caption, but the joke called for it. At this early stage, you won’t be wrong to point out a certain stylistic debt (it’s the roundness and simplicity of line!) to his contemporary and compatriot Jean Effel. Henry was indeed a fan. Do check out my co-admin ds’ fine post spotlighting the good Monsieur Effel.

An example of what enlightened creators such as Henry were fighting for: making room for cartoons that weren’t just about the cheap chuckles. Consider, for instance, the existential plight of the Minotoreador . Published in K. Revue de la poésie no. 3 (“De l’humour à la terreur”, May 1949).

The Military, Government, Constabulary and Clergy were favourite targets, naturally. When it was (barely) tolerated. It helped to be ambiguous, even if one wasn’t ambivalent (1951).

Here’s one for the clergy; though mocking, it’s hardly what you’d call hostile. From the first issue of epochal surrealist magazine Bizarre (1955-1968).

Yes, it’s Card Sharp Jesus entertaining, confounding (and possibly fleecing) his disciples. Note the ace up his right sleeve (1941).

Walking on water was clearly just the beginning (1948).

Henry’s Jesus seems like a swell fellow, really. A bit on the roguish side, which is fine by me (1958).

See? A case of a joke’s that’s more than a half-century old still finding echoes in the present day. Cover from The Darkness‘ prophetic 2019 album, Easter Is Cancelled.

That soldier’s scared yet dismayed expression brings to mind Futurama’s hapless Philip J. Fry.

That’s one relaxed elephant.

Another illusion shattered.


The little hand wave at the end really makes this one.

The artist in 1935, photographed by his friend and frequent co-conspirator Arthur Harfaux.